7th March 2012
The jeep pulls up at 8.30am. Two hours later, there are ten of us heading out of town. It’s a hot day and the realization that we’re about to take on a five day trek through the jungles of Colombia starts to dawn. We turn down a small dusty dirt track, full of giant potholes. It’s pretty uncomfortable but the convoy vehicle in front looks a lot worse. We stop, eat quickly and then set off on foot for the jungle.
The weather is dry making the ground underfoot dusty. We tackle the first hill aggressively, climbing at a good pace. At the top we take in the scenery – lush green forests, coffee plantations and rolling hills. The hills are pocketed with patches of empty, scorched land. These are the old coco plantations destroyed by a US backed government campaign to eradicate the coco crop. As always these things find a way to survive though, and as we pass a new plantation we stop to examine the leaves. It’s hard to imagine that this tiny leaf causes so many problems.
We arrive into camp around 5pm after stopping to swim in a river along the way. Tonight we are staying in hammocks adorned by mosquito nets. It’s not the mosquitos, but the cold that wakes me at first light. It's set in all along my back. We eat breakfast, pack silently and set off on foot again. We go deeper into the jungle today and almost instantly the scene changes. Suddenly dense trees hug the narrow trail we are following, occasionally blocking the path or forcing us to trip over their huge roots. We cling to the sharp edge of a cliff as we inch our way over a huge rock with nothing but a narrow ledge to place our feet on and a steep twenty metre drop to our left.
We spend the next two hours weaving our way uphill. The intensity of the sun and the moisture from the jungle means water pours out of us. We are in serious risk of dehydrating if we don’t keep enough liquids down. As we weave our way through the jungle, we cross a number of rivers, but our biggest is yet to come. When we arrive the water is knee deep. At the right time of year, just after the rainy season, this river can be waist high. We step into it, it's refreshingly icy. Holding our belongings above our head, to keep them dry, we trudge across it. It's not far over the other side when we make camp. Tonight we will sleep in rows of tiny wooden beds. The mattresses are damp from the humidity and the beds are exposed to the elements on every side, but I still sleep incredibly well.
On the fourth day we set off for La Ciudad Perdida. As we begin to climb the 1200 steps to the ancient city, the ruins start to take shape through the early morning mist. Round circular platforms open out on either side. Mossy stones mark the area where a market would have been in 800AD, 650 years before Macchu Pichu was built, in neighbouring Peru. At the top of the steps, the largest of the 169 terraces sprawls before us. As we walk out onto it, the jungle below stretches out as far as the eye can see. The distinctive characteristics of the terraces rise up to our left and yet another platform opens up to our right. At the top, watching us, stand three armed guards. They are here to keep the area safe. In 2003, a group of tourists were kidnapped after visiting La Ciudad Perdida and kept in the jungle for 102 days by guerilla forces. Today armed guards patrol the area to prevent it happening again, although today, Colombia is a very different country to the one it was almost ten years ago, and theres virtually no threat of the same thing happening again.
We climb up to the guards to take photos. Once we are up there, we notice that there is a hidden camping ground with tents strung amongst the trees. They can watch us silently from here without us ever knowing they are here. We return to camp and start making our way out of the jungle. It’s a long hike, but we make it back to camp in good time. After a cold shower in the creaky wooden huts, we settle in for a hearty meal and another night on a damp mattress. As people start to drift off to bed, we are alerted to a plague of ants that have descended on our camp. As the black swarm spreads over the beds like a spilt glass of water, the guides frantically try to stop them. Fire is thrown at them, water is thrown at them and someone tries to brush them away. We are told they come once a year and there is nothing to stop them when they do. Luckily, just as I am contemplating a sleepless night, it begins to rain outside. One of the many things I have learnt about the jungle on this trip, is that ants have a remarkable ability to sense rain. A hundred ants can be ferrying bits of broken leaf backwards and forwards but at the first sight of rain, they drop the leaves and run for their nests. This means we have been extremely lucky and will at least get some rest tonight. As we climb into our beds, the rain continue to fall. At times it is so loud that it wakes me from my sleep. Not being able to fight it, I get up and stand and watch it. Others are doing the same.
When the morning comes, the rain has eased slightly. We have a long day ahead of us but within a few minutes, it has gone through our waterproofs and we are soaked to the skin. The path ahead is muddy, the rivers flow faster and the humidity has not eased up. It is going to take us a long time to get back.
Out of the jungle and back on the Colombian trail, the next stop is Medellin – until recently one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia, off bounds to almost all. Having checked into my hostel I sign up for the Pablo Escobar tour – the chance to meet his family, visit one of his homes and understand a bit more about the worlds most notorious drug baron. Our first stop is a bomb destruction site – targeted by the Cali cartel, the Medellin cartel’s biggest rival. Derelict and in a state of disrepair, the building stands covered in iconic graffiti. Next we move on to the family’s private burial site where Pablo lies alongside his mother, overlooking Medellin. Our last stop is a family residence, one of many we are told. Outside we see two of Pablo’s vintage cars, his Harley Davidson and photographs of him descending the steps of his private jet. Inside this gated property, we see bullet holes hidden behind photos, secret hideouts behind bookshelves and a collection of memorabilia setting out the story of his life. Pablo’s nephew greets us inside. He recites tales of being on the run in Germany and England, recalling how unsafe it was in Colombia for his family. We sit and listen for a while, its interesting to hear this side of the story.
Later that night, in the comfort of the hostel, a group of us watch a documentary – the Tale of Two Pablo’s. It tells the tale of drugs and football in Colombia, a world cup victory that wasn’t meant to be and a very tragic ending. During my time in South America I've seen a lot of things that relate to preventing the drug trade, but here in Colombia, I've meet the family of one of the most famous drug baron's in the world, got to know a city that was once so dangerous it was off-bounds to the rest of the world, seen the efforts the US goes to, to tackle this at the cause, and held in my hand the tiny leaf that kicks it all off...